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The exhibition Connecting Seas: A Visual History of Discoveries and Encounters at the Getty Research Institute ends with this photograph, Triumph of the Will—an image of might that references the colonial legacy of Africa, pointing to social and economic issues that reverberate worldwide.
The international media continually report alarming news from the African continent. Often the images in these reports document military and social conflicts and the plight of refugees, frequently women and children, forced to abandon their villages to escape violence. These conflicts may seem remote—confined to forests and deserts from another continent. That’s why the work of two contemporary photographers strikes me for effectively placing African affairs at the center of today’s globalized interconnected world: Richard Mosse and Pieter Hugo.
Mosse’s Triumph of the Will—its title ambiguously exuding an optimistic, forward-looking vision of a better future—shows two soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) standing on the ruin of a military commando structure built at the time when Congo was a Belgian colony.
In this picture, today’s Congolese stand high on the legacy of their colonial past, both physically and metaphorically. The magenta landscape hints at underground richness, the minerals and resources that the country has contributed to the global market for centuries.
Mosse’s photograph continues the narrative of the colonization of Congo told through earlier materials in the exhibition, including satirical early 20th-century prints and the writings of Mark Twain, which I explore in the video below. (For more on the history of the Congo, see the related lecture by Adam Hochschild on March 16.)
When Congo was the colony of Belgian King Leopold, it contributed first ivory and then rubber to the international market. Rubber was instrumental in the early stages of modernization, when inflatable tires were in high demand for newly invented bicycles and automobiles. In today’s high-tech world, however, Congo offers a large supply of another commodity: coltan, an ore abundant in the forests that, once processed into tantalum, becomes a heat-resistant conductor of electricity in great demand for consumer electronics.
Congo’s richness in natural resources for the global market has resulted in decades-long warfare. Richard Mosse, finding no words to express what he saw as the “unspeakable,” turned to obsolete infrared technology developed in the 1940s by the military to depict this environment in a surreal and sinister light.
Mosse’s photographs address the horrors of the beginning of the supply chain of high-tech industry, presenting the plight of people impacted by “conflict minerals” used in laptops and cell phones worldwide. By contrast, Pieter Hugo, a contemporary photographer from South Africa, has used photography to describe the end of this chain. His series Permanent Error captures the reality of a dumping site for electronic waste in Agbogbloshie, a slum area in Accra, the capital of Ghana.
Discarded from Europe and the United States, troves of computers, monitors, keyboards, and other electronic waste make their way to this area as recyclables. Once delivered to this digital graveyard, local scavengers, often of child age, make a living by recovering scraps of minerals hidden in wires and on computer boards. Yakubu Al Hasan, one of these scavengers, is portrayed in this picture carrying a bundle of intertwined electric wires and cables he has just collected.
While Mosse’s photograph is vividly rendered with stark contrasts of blue and magenta, Hugo’s image appears nearly black and white, with gray tones highlighting white toxic smoke, fumes from burning plastic wires, and electronic debris littering the ground. The only colors appearing in the portrait of Yakubu Al Hasan at the Agbogbloshie Market are the faint yellow, pink, purple of the wires crowning the head of the subject. Tellingly he has also recovered a tire of rubber, still a commodity today.
These powerful images are a fitting contemporary commentary to the “Commerce and Colonialism” section of Connecting Seas, which I co-curated with Getty Research Institute curator of photographs Frances Terpak. This final gallery—where Mosse’s photograph hangs—explores modern Europe’s growing desire for goods from around the world, which culminated in global imperialist interventions and colonialism. In the work of these two photographers, the morphing of the African environment, from the highly saturated tones of Mosse’s infrared photography to the faint colorless imagery of Hugo’s chromogenic prints, reflects the global supply chain as the legacy of the continent’s colonial past.
I would like to thank Marjorie Ornston for bringing to my attention Pieter Hugo’s series Permanent Error in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Department of Photographs.
Suggestions for further reading
Pieter Hugo, Permanent Error (Munich: Prestel Art, 2011)
Pieter Hugo, T. J. Demos, and Aaron Schuman, Pieter Hugo: This Must Be the Place (Munich: Prestel, 2012)
Richard Mosse and Adam Hochschild, Infra: Photographs (New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation, 2012)
Richard Mosse, Jason K. Stearns, Anna O’Sullivan, Trevor Tweeten, and Ben Frost, Richard Mosse: The Enclave (2013)